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The tragic suicide of headteacher Ruth Perry a year ago has led to a reckoning for the education sector, and demands for an overhaul of the school inspections system. But now calls for change are moving beyond Ofsted.
A coroner ruled last month December that work-related stress was a contributing factor to the Reading headteacher’s suicide, as Perry’s school had just received a negative Ofsted inspection.
Inspections are currently paused until 22 January while the system is reviewed, and a new boss has been appointed. However, Perry’s sister Julia Waters, and mental health and safety campaigners, are calling for an step-change in suicide prevention across all workplaces.
No action was taken by the safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, in response to Ruth Perry’s death – because suicide is not deemed a “reportable” incident under health and safety law, expert academic Prof Sarah Waters told Byline Times. Prof Sarah Waters, who is not related to Julia, has researched the issue of work-related suicides for over a decade.
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The Hazards trade union group, which has campaigned on this issue for nearly 20 years, estimates that there are 650 work-related suicides every year in the UK – equating to over 50 suicides linked to work every month. They also estimate that approximately 10% of all suicides are work-related.
“Many bereaved families experience a deep sense of injustice following a suicide death. The work-related factors that pushed their loved one to such desperate extremes are not taken seriously, no changes are implemented, and no lessons are learnt,” Prof Waters said.
Campaigners are drawing attention to “dangerous gaps” in the UK regulatory system where work-related suicides are still not recognised, investigated or prevented.
The UK regulator, the Health and Safety Executive is responsible for ensuring all workplaces are safe and that work-related deaths are prevented. Yet suicides are specifically excluded from its reporting systems, with the regulator noting: “All deaths to workers and nonworkers, with the exception of suicides, must be reported if they arise from a work-related accident [emphasis added].”
Suicides typically result in an inquest, which can lead then be referred to HSE or the workplace to implement recommendations. However, this does not happen consistently.
Julia Waters, sister of Ruth Perry, said in a statement to Byline Times that she was backing efforts to push HSE to investigate suspected work-related suicides, so that “meaningful systemic changes” are introduced to prevent future deaths.
“The inquest into my sister’s death has shone a spotlight on deep-seated flaws in Ofsted’s schools inspection regime. But there is also a wider issue affecting all UK workers and workplaces: under current regulations, suicide is not officially recognised as a work-related death.
“The Health and Safety Executive is responsible for ensuring that schools, like all other workplaces, are safe. Yet, it does not ask for suicides to be reported and there is no investigation carried out in the aftermath of a suicide death.
“This is a potentially dangerous situation: employers are not required to put any preventative measures in place following a suicide death. They are not required to make any changes at all in the workplace to prevent future deaths,” Julia Waters said.
She added that there is no health and safety framework in place to report and monitor work-related suicide cases or to prevent further tragedies from occurring.
“I fully support the campaign to push the Health & Safety Executive to record and investigate every work-related suicide. We need to ensure that work is safe, that workplace practices are humane and that mental health is safeguarded for every single employee in every single workplace up and down the country.
“We need a rigorous health and safety system that is fit for purpose and that ensures that no other family has to face the devastation that we have,” Perry’s sister added.
Prof Sarah Waters added that it was absurd that employers aren’t obliged to report deaths by suicide, investigate their circumstances, or make any changes to workplace practices.
“While work-related stress has become a major public health concern with widespread policy intervention measures, a suicide [following] severe work-related stress is still treated within the UK regulatory system as a private and individual matter with no connections to work,” she said.
Recent cases of suicide where work or work pressures have been recognised as a contributory factor include those of firefighters, nurses, doctors, paramedics, construction workers and call-centre workers.
A forthcoming paper by Australian researchers puts the global figure of suicides relating to workplace difficulties at 10-13%, but suggests the actual numbers are likely to be far higher. The highest proportion of suicides worldwide occurs amongst working-age adults, many of whom are employed at the time of death.
A petition calling on government to introduce a Suicide Prevention Act has just reached 10,000 signatures. The petition includes a specific call for all work-related suicides to be recorded and investigated. For Paul Vittles who organised the petition, such a change is a “no-brainer”. The Government is yet to respond but is expected to do so in the coming weeks.
A HSE spokesperson told Byline Times: “Our thoughts are with everyone who knew Ruth Perry. Suicide is not reportable to us under current regulations. A coroner can refer a case to HSE if they consider there is an ongoing risk to others – that did not happen in this case.”
When asked if they thought the current law was fit for purpose, the spokesperson added that the regulator’s role was not to comment on the law but to enforce it.
A recent article in the British Medical Journal by former BMA president Martin McKee and Prof Waters provided evidence of at least eight suicide cases where an Ofsted inspection was cited as a factor by an official source (coroner, police enquiry, family statement).
Update: An earlier version of this piece stated that Ofsted inspections had been paused ‘indefinitely’. This was incorrect by the time of publication. They will be resumed on 22 January.
If you have been affected by the issues discussed here, you can call the charity Samaritans for free on 116 123, email them at email@example.com, or visit samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.
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